The bodies of the 15 polo horses arrived from Wellington in the dark of night, their sudden and very public deaths a mystery that demanded quick answers.
Investigators turned to a team of University of Florida veterinary experts, who confirmed that the horses had each received a vitamin shot with deadly levels of selenium before arriving for a match at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
The finding was just the latest triumph for UF's College of Veterinary Medicine, which next year will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first graduating class. As the only veterinary medicine college in Florida and one of just 28 in the United States, UF is the training ground for most of the Sunshine State's veterinarians.
Here, students learn to treat bats suffering from epilepsy. They deliver chemotherapy to cats. They test the effects of drugs on racehorses. At the college's Racing Lab, they look for cocaine in the urine and blood of Kentucky Derby horses, as well as racehorses and greyhounds throughout Florida.
Because this is one of just a few U.S. veterinary schools with a college of human medicine practically next door, students are part of ground-breaking research with significant implications for animals and people. Already, the college's researchers have developed a vaccine for the virus that causes feline AIDS.
With construction under way on a $58 million small-animal hospital, the college hopes to expand its potential for innovative research and treatment.
"Because we have people that work in all of those areas and are national experts, when something like the polo horse incident happens, the state and federal agencies call on us," dean Glen Hofsis said. "Ultimately the greatest veterinary expertise is centered in the college of veterinary medicine, so they turn to us, and rightly so."
Only 88 first-year slots
It can be harder to get into the UF veterinary medicine college than the UF medical school.
Every year about 900 aspiring veterinarians and animal researchers apply for 88 first-year slots in the veterinary medicine college, which is consistently ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report.
Lisa Littlejohn, a Palm Harbor University High School graduate, didn't get in the first time she applied. So she worked for a year after getting her UF bachelor's degree, studied for a higher GRE score and got in.
"I was ecstatic," she said.
Littlejohn, 26, is now in her final year of the program and plans to practice small-animal medicine.
She has treated an elderly cougar with kidney failure. She had to euthanize a young paralyzed deer with a ruptured bladder. She has helped dogs and cats undergoing chemotherapy — cases that account for about half of the small-animal hospital's workload.
"I've seen a lot of unpleasant things," Littlejohn said, "but every single person here is just brilliant, and the hands-on experience is great."
Dr. John Harvey, executive associate dean of the veterinary college, said the UF College of Medicine nearby strengthens the program.
"We are one of the few U.S. universities with both a medical school and a vet school," said Harvey, a founding faculty member. "That allows us to do research and collaboration in brain science, oncology, dentistry, infectious diseases."
UF immunologist Janet Yamamoto has developed and patented a vaccine for the virus that causes AIDS in cats. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, she continues to research ways the vaccine might be modified to treat humans with HIV.
The polo horse case joins other recent headline-grabbing moments involving the veterinary college.
In March, UF veterinarian Mike Walsh, associate director of the college's aquatic animal health program, was part of a team that performed the historic rescue of a North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species, that had been severely entangled in fishing gear near St. Augustine.
It took Walsh and the other rescuers two days to free the 40-foot, 40,000-pound whale.
Keeping it clean
UF's Racing Lab is in a nondescript white concrete block building at the edge of UF's campus.
The only public racing lab in the state, this is where director Rick Sams and his team work to make sure Florida racehorse and greyhounds are competing dope-free.
The lab enjoys a $2 million annual contract with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to test all horses' and dogs' blood and urine.
The vials come into the tiny lab by the dozens, tucked inside Igloo coolers and marked with bar codes for identification.
Sams and his team of 40 workers test for cocaine, anabolic steroids and other substances.
In the latest coup, the lab scored the exclusive contract, worth up to $1 million a year, to test all Kentucky Derby horses and horses competing in other Kentucky races.
Yes, Derby fans, that means the urine and blood of this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, came to the UF racing lab.
Says Sams: "He came back clean."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.